Surging Kings look to assert themselves against Heat

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After a decade of missing out, the Sacramento Kings don’t mind trotting out the “P” word in January. The next two weeks should give them a decent indication whether they are any closer to playing basketball in late April or whether the playoffs remain a mirage for the 11th straight season.

The Kings (15-19) play the first of seven straight contests at the Golden 1 Center on Wednesday when they host the Miami Heat.

Sacramento’s longest homestand of the season will last 14 days, four of them against teams above .500 and two of them against defending conference champions.

But Sacramento (15-19) also plays three teams struggling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, one of them the Heat. Miami (10-26) lost 99-90 at the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday and has dropped six in a row for the second time this season.

For the Kings it’s a chance to assert themselves and get a sixth win in eight games, a run that began when DeMarcus Cousins scored 55 points Dec. 20 against Portland in a 126-121 win. The Kings won three more before double-digit losses to Portland and Memphis but rebounded with a 120-113 road win over the Denver Nuggets Tuesday.

Cousins scored 31 points and Darren Collison added 26. But Sacramento won primarily by holding Denver to 20 points over the first 11:20 of the fourth quarter, returning to a pattern that carried them during their hot spell.

In their past five victories, the Kings have allowed an average of 22.0 points in the final 12 minutes. They gave up 57 fourth-quarter points in the two losses.

“This win was crucial,” Collison said. “We had to get that taste out of our mouth. We felt like the last couple of games, we got away from who we are as a team, especially down the stretch.”

Sacramento also recorded four of its past five victories without forward Rudy Gay (right hip flexor strain), who has missed nine of the past 10. Forward Arron Afflalo returned to the lineup against the Nuggets after missing three games with an elbow injury and scored 19 points in 30 minutes, but guard Ty Lawson sat out with blurred vision after taking an elbow to the head in Saturday’s loss to Memphis.

The Heat, in the middle of rebuilding process after seven playoff appearances in their past eight seasons, will play the second of six consecutive road games on the road. The jaunt is their longest of the season.

Guard Goran Dragic returned from a two-game absence caused by back pain and scored 24 points against Phoenix on Tuesday, but guard Dion Waiters’ return from a 20-game absence caused by a groin injury was pushed back at least another night.

Waters and Dragic both are questionable for Wednesday’s game, while forwards Josh McRoberts (left foot stress fracture), Justice Winslow (stinger) and center Hassan Whiteside (bruised right eye) remained in Miami. Whiteside and Winslow could join the team later on the trip, the Miami Herald reported.

Whiteside, the Kings’ third pick in the 2010 draft and waived after playing 19 games for them, was averaging a career-best 17.3 points and 14.3 rebounds in 34 minutes per game before suffering a bruised right eye. He will visit a doctor Wednesday.

With the ranks thin, Miami lost to the Suns for the first time in since Nov. 3, 2009, ending a 12-game run against them. The Heat have lost nine of 10 overall and 14 of 17.

“We understand that we have that Miami Heat jersey on, so every time we put it on, we know we’re are getting an opportunity,” center Willie Reed said. “So you want to go out there and show this organization that you will do whatever it takes to win. Sometimes it doesn’t work out in this league, but you have to keep continuously building those habits.”

Miami has won five straight from Sacramento and 15 of the last 16 meetings. Sacramento’s lone win in that span occurred Dec. 27, 2013 at home when Cousins scored 27 points in a 108-103 overtime win.